The Hawk in the Wind Reimagining Richard Jefferies

A Guest Post by Clive Bennett

‘See—the hawk, after going nearly out of sight, has swept round, and passes again at no great distance; this is a common habit of his kind, to beat round in wide circles. As the breeze strikes him aslant his course he seems to fly for a short time partly on one side, like a skater sliding on the outer edge …

Richard Jefferies wrote passionately about nature and the countryside combining vivid description and imagery – painting in words – his palette the nature of his beloved hills and vales the downs and all the trees birds insects and animals that lived there …

He is my inspiration (in a sense my muse) for writing poetry, haiku, and prose; and in life. As a teenager before mindfulness became fashionable I found solace in his essays – especially his autobiography – ‘The Story of My Heart’ which held particular resonance – I was no longer alone as I lay on the short turf of the Wiltshire Downs and lost myself in the pure rich blue of the sky. Later I too learnt the transcendent power of a stray sunbeam in a dusty room and birch leaves trembling from outside an upstairs window of a city flat …

As an aspiring haiku poet, reading his essays – prose poems if you like – afresh, such is the richness of imagery and language they seem imbued with the spirit of haiku. Looking closely, within the larger body of his texts, there are words and lines that hint at an underlying, yet unexpressed, Zen like moment of awareness or suchness.

The Found Poem

Some 25 years or more ago, having previously published a book on Found Poems (‘Some Spirit Land’ – 1986) from the Nature Essays of Richard Jefferies, Colin Blundell presented his seminal work on Found Haiku (‘Something Beyond The Stars’ – 1993) to the Richard Jefferies Society; a unique and novel approach to the study of Richard Jefferies.

Colin – a respected haiku poet … and lifelong student of the prose poems of Richard Jefferies, among many other things – found words and phrases in his essays and notes that, expressed as haiku, sought to elucidate that moment of awareness, that Zen moment of suchness, he believed Jefferies experienced, but struggled to convey in mere words. Jefferies himself felt he would sometimes ‘lose the meaning in words’.

willow wren singing
in the dry furze of the coombe
violets in the furze

15th April 1883

Colin used the 5-7-5 discipline, in common English usage at the time, in writing his haiku. While the poems were quintessentially Jefferies, contemporary freeform haiku allows a more flexible approach in their construction.

sedge warbler
climbing among the flags
sings incessantly

The Hills and the Vale – 1909

Yet I am dissatisfied. While this is a perfectly good haiku – a ‘sketch from life’ (Shiki) – there is no moment of awareness or insight. It is ‘as is’. What is missing perhaps, is what the late Martin Lucas calls the Poetic Spell …

The Poetic Spell

‘To approach the poetic spell via imagery often appears to involve nothing more than mere description. The difference is that what is described is somehow so satisfying that we linger in the moment, and almost seek to dwell in it.

One criterion of the poetic spell would be original thought; original imagery; and, pleasingly musical language.  Importantly, it also resists definitive interpretation. It’s very much the reader’s poem.’

a light breeze
sweeping the hill
the kestrel’s cry

‘Poetic spells don’t tell us anything, they are something, they exist as objects of fascination in their own right. You can hold them in the light and turn them about and watch each of their facets gleam. They begin and end each reader’s unique reflection.’

Here is the extract from which this haiku was derived …

‘… Presently a small swift shadow passes across—it is that of a hawk flying low over the hill. He skirts it for some distance, and then shoots out into the air, comes back half-way, and hangs over the fallow below, where there is a small rick. His wings vibrate, striking the air downwards, and only slightly backwards, the tail depressed counteracting the inclination to glide forwards for awhile. In a few moments he slips, as it were, from his balance, but brings, himself up again in a few yards, turning a curve so as to still hover above the rick. …’

‘… See—the hawk, after going nearly out of sight, has swept round, and passes again at no great distance; this is a common habit of his kind, to beat round in wide circles. As the breeze strikes him aslant his course he seems to fly for a short time partly on one side, like a skater sliding on the outer edge. …’

An extract from ‘Wild Life in a Southern County’ – his essays of happier times in the hills and vales of the Wessex Downs.

Now read, preferably out loud, the haiku again – linger in the moment of each line …

a light breeze
sweeping the hill
the kestrel’s cry

Here, by using just a few words – hawk swept breeze – the haiku gently invokes your senses; leading you to the hill, and the hawk in the wind – the moment is yours.

For Richard Jefferies the freedom of a bird’s life was appealing to him, as was a bird’s ability to live in tune with its surroundings and to take delight in the natural rhythms and beauties of the seasons.

“… the colour and sound and light, the changing days, the birds of the wood and of the field; its woven embroidery so beautiful, because without design …”

The Dewy Morn’ (1884).

This then is the charm – the spell – of Richard Jefferies’ prose … the found poems in the brief seasonal foray, that follows, lead you back to the essays from which they are derived, with an enriched sense of beauty.

Winter

‘Passing further up the road, the rooks have discovered an arable field, where, just before the snow fell, manure had been carted out and left in small heaps for spreading. These are now covered with snow, but near the bottom are perhaps not quite frozen. An oak-tree, white to the smallest twig, stands solitary in the midst. A whole flock of rooks are perched on it; every two or three minutes some descend to the immediate neighbourhood of the manure heaps, and after a short interval rise with a feeble caw and rest upon a branch. There is a perpetual stream of rooks like this passing up and down. The very bough the rook roosts on at night is coated with frozen snow, though his weight as he alights shakes it off in some degree under his claws.’

rooks gather …
the bough breaks
under the snow

Under the Snow – via Rebecca Welshman

Spring

‘It is the February summer that comes, and lasts a week or so between the January frosts and the east winds that rush through the thorns. Some little green is even now visible along the mound where seed-leaves are springing up. The sun is warm, and the still air genial, the sky only dotted with a few white clouds. Wood-pigeons are busy in the elms, where the ivy is thick with ripe berries. There is a feeling of spring and of growth; in a day or two we shall find violets; and listen, how sweetly the larks are singing! Some chase each other, and then hover fluttering above the hedge.’

sunny days
tease the blackbird
into song

Life of the Fields 1899

‘… “There’s the cuckoo!” Everyone looked up and listened as the notes came indoors from the copse by the garden. He had returned to the same spot for the fourth time. The tallest birch-tree—it is as tall as an elm—stands close to the hedge, about three parts of the way up it, and it is just round there that the cuckoo generally sings. From the garden gate it is only a hundred yards to this tree, walking beside the hedge which extends all the way, so that the very first time the cuckoo calls upon his arrival he is certain to be heard. His voice travels that little distance with ease, and can be heard in every room.’

sunshine …
filling every room
the cuckoo’s call

The Hills and the Vale 1909

Summer

‘There seemed just now the tiniest twinkle of movement by the rushes, but it was lost among the hedge parsley. Among the grey leaves of the willow there is another flit of motion; and visible now against the sky there is a little brown bird, not to be distinguished at the moment from the many other little brown birds that are known to be about. He got up into the willow from the hedge parsley somehow, without being seen to climb or fly. Suddenly he crosses to the tops of the hawthorn and immediately flings himself up into the air a yard or two, his wings and ruffled crest making a ragged outline; jerk, jerk, jerk, as if it were with the utmost difficulty he could keep even at that height. He scolds, and twitters, and chirps, and all at once sinks like a stone into the hedge and out of sight as a stone into a pond. It is a whitethroat; his nest is deep in the parsley and nettles.’

the only sound …
bursting from the hedge
a whitethroat

“The Pageant of Summer,” which originally appeared in Longman’s Magazine, was reprinted in The Life of the Fields – 1887

‘The colour of the yellowhammer appears brighter in spring and early summer: the bird is aglow with a beautiful and brilliant, yet soft yellow, pleasantly shaded with brown. He perches on the upper boughs of the hawthorn or on a rail, coming up from the corn as if to look around him—for he feeds chiefly on the ground—and uttering two or three short notes. His plumage gives a life and tint to the hedge, contrasting so brightly with the vegetation and with other birds. His song is but a few bars repeated, yet it has a pleasing and soothing effect in the drowsy warmth of summer.’

in evening’s glow
yellowhammer sing
the warm air still

“Wild Life in a Southern County” 1879

Autumn

black clouds
swirling twisting turning
drop into firs

‘In the thick foliage of this belt of firs the starlings love to roost. If you should be passing along any road—east, north, west, or south —a mile or two distant, as the sun is sinking and evening approaching, suddenly there will come a rushing sound in the air overhead: it is a flock of starlings flying in their determined manner straight for the distant copse. From every direction these flocks converge upon it: some large, some composed only of a dozen birds, but all with the same intent …’

‘… Viewed from a spot three or four fields away, the copse in the evening seems to be overhung by a long dark cloud like a bar of mist, while the sky is clear and no dew is yet risen. The resemblance to a cloud is so perfect that any one—not thinking of such things—may for the time be deceived, and wonder why a cloud should descend and rest over that particular spot. Suddenly, the two ends of the extended black bar contract, and the middle swoops down in the shape of an inverted cone, much resembling a waterspout, and in a few seconds the cloud pours itself into the trees. Another minute and a black streak shoots upwards, spreads like smoke, parts in two, and wheels round back into the firs again.

On approaching it this apparent cloud is found to consist of thousands of starlings, the noise of whose calling to each other is indescribable—the country folk call it a “charm,” meaning a noise made up of innumerable lesser sounds, each interfering with the other. The vastness of these flocks is hardly credible until seen; in winter the bare trees on which they alight become suddenly quite black.’

wave after wave
sound of pebbles
in the backwash

“Wild Life in a Southern County” 1879

———————

SONY DSC
Liddington Hill by Kate Allen Tryon

Artist Credit: Picture of Liddington Hill by Kate Allen Tryon (March 18, 1865 – 1952) – an American journalist, artist and lecturer.

Kate Tryon first visited Swindon, Wiltshire, in 1910, and she returned 5 other times: “The lark, the nightingale and Richard Jefferies – those are the three things that brought me to England”; the output of these visits is a vast array of paintings.

© the copyright holder. Photo credit: Swindon Museum and Art Gallery and reproduced here under the terms of their licence

Postscript

Here’s one though not about birds … perhaps a fitting postscript that for me describes the ethos of his writing and of Jefferies himself …

sunrise
shadows lengthen
a leaf falls

The Hills and the Vale 1909

Thanks to Rebecca Welshman for hosting this Guest Post and to Simon Coleman who unwittingly provided me with some of the quoted passages. Thanks also to Colin Blundell who ‘got there first’.

‘There is Something More’

Simon Coleman

 

quantock photo

Photo by Richard Wiltshire: https://www.trover.com/d/1m11S-quantock-hills-somerset-england

‘The sun in silence rising over the sea makes me feel a sense and a sympathy with some larger life, and to imagine some larger scheme.’

So wrote Richard Jefferies in his notebook in early 1887, in what would be the last year of his life.  He was bedridden much of the time, suffering from a progressive tuberculosis which had affected his intestines, spine and, finally, his lungs.  But his mind was as active as ever, his memory providing him with crystal-clear images from his past wanderings on the downs of Wiltshire and Sussex, and by the south coast – images that burned with the brilliance of the sun and the wandering constellations of the night.  In some of his notebook entries he employs the elements of nature, as well as the flowers, trees and birds, to focus his thought on the problems that have beset the human race through the centuries: the great fear of death and the ‘superstition’ of organised religion; the domination of wealth and the extraordinary pursuit of money and goods; and the failure of our moral and intellectual systems to make any real sense of the role of mankind on the earth or to find ways to reduce human suffering.

He senses the existence of this ‘larger scheme’, or ‘Greatness’, but what is mankind’s role in it, or relationship with it?  These questions are not to be answered by the conventional ideas of deity, as he already made clear in his autobiography, ‘The Story of My Heart’.  In another entry in the notebook, Jefferies writes:

‘Thought and Soul Instinct tell me [that there is] Something More.’

Something more than the ideas of deity and immortality is what he means.  He has concluded that the latter two concepts are essentially the product of the ‘dream’ approach to metaphysical enquiry.  They are not based on actual experience.  Similarly, the materialistic ideas emanating from science of his day he finds equally inadequate.

‘To believe that there is nothing Beyond – that all is mud matter – is as senseless as to believe in the Deity and the dream basis.’

The conviction that there is something beyond all experience, life, death, and all that can be thought and imagined, is what seems to sustain him during his last months.  Increasingly he refers to ‘the Beyond’ as a noun, to recognise its reality.   At times he equates the Beyond with ‘the Idea of the Whole’ but it becomes clear that he sees it as undefinable, something ‘other’ that is outside our minds.

‘I see that this life is entirely different to what I understand.  I see that the other Nature or Beyond is entirely different.  I see that the whole scheme is quite outside.  A tree – an outside idea at once in itself.’

The startling last sentence suggests that Jefferies is starting to apply the ‘Beyond perspective’ to ordinary observations.  If it were possible to look at a tree in the absence of all previous perceptions and knowledge, its riot of twisting branches and rich glow of leaves would surely impress upon our minds a sense of its ‘otherness’.  Perhaps nature and the elements, the rising and setting sun, might in some way offer clues to the existence of this Beyond.

‘To look at the sun alone over the trees – sunset – enough of itself to prove other ideas.’

The Beyond or the Scheme, he senses, has nothing to do with good and evil or pleasure and pain, or human life at all.  He cannot understand the Scheme because of his own personal judgements about his experiences: they are good or bad.  But by breaking through this heavy chain of narrow, personalized thinking, Jefferies feels that it might be possible ‘to realise the edge of the scheme’.  If he himself is of no consequence to the Scheme, then it cannot be judged by the criteria that are applied to human experiences.  Naturally, it is outside and beyond such matters.  He would rather identify himself with this Scheme, rather than hope for anything from it which is the typical approach of most religions.  Whatever the Scheme might be, it has nothing to do with concepts of god.

He finds ‘more rest’, he says, in trying to identify with the Scheme.

‘In this sun over the sea all my earth-feelings seem very small and almost nothing: I can feel a high existence.’

In his later years Jefferies wrestled continuously with his ambivalent feelings toward nature and the elements.  While, though their beauty, he is able to live a more intense life, ‘as if every grass blade and leaf were a torch….’, still he finds no purpose or plan in nature.  In short, it is without soul, or anything resembling the human heart.

‘There is no heart in nature (the Universe) [Jefferies’ brackets].  Man must supply it, heart.  That seems to be his peculiar position far more so than intelligence which is shared by so many other things.  Canon.  The Heart (above all creeds and reasons).’

Jefferies ‘burned life like a torch’ – he was solar in nature and wanted to see a powerful heart energy ignite the human race.  We would then labour not for money and goods or for imaginary heavens after death, but for the fulfilment of our souls’ desire here and now.  This dramatic change of heart would undoubtedly help bring about a better human life for those to come in future times.   If the soul were able to free itself from all the ideas of materialism and religion, it would surely be satisfied only with the great unknown that is the Beyond or the Scheme.

‘This life – this now – is itself beyond – since it is an idea outside my ideas…Birds on tree -…they are Beyond.’

Day after day, as he inches ever closer towards death, Jefferies grapples with the problems that he presented in ‘The Story of My Heart’ in 1883.  His mind has been nailed down to past ideas of materialism and superstitious religion; he doesn’t understand nature and the universe, or why it seems empty of human ideas and sympathy; and is there anything to pray for that is not a deity?  Perhaps he has come up against the Buddhist idea of the void, but, as yet, is unable to see the other side of it, which is the world of tangible things – of ‘suchness’.  I don’t want to pursue this idea now, as I admit I don’t fully grasp it.  However, I feel that Jefferies was moving into this territory and, had his health recovered, might have produced an even more remarkable book than ‘The Story of My Heart’.  This follow-up work was clearly in mind when he was writing many of these later notes.

I am not able to provide any satisfactory conclusion to this post.  But I do feel that, in the two final quotes above, Jefferies is expressing some fresh and powerful perceptions, again demonstrating the originality of his thought despite the intense difficulties with which he was afflicted.

Jefferies, Socialism, and Climate Change

Rebecca Welshman

july wheat

“Ending climate change requires the end of capitalism” wrote Phil McDuff in the Guardian, who then went on to mention [1] sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg who has given a new urgent voice to the climate crisis. For decades climate change scientists, environmentalists, and thousands of others have been saying similar things, but have been ignored and sidelined, or dismissed as paranoid hippies or scaremongers. Thunberg’s speeches are, to many of us, like raindrops falling on parched land. It’s almost too late, but there is still a chance that something can be done. Thunberg has been picked up by the media and been given a platform. For this to happen, something must have shifted. Perhaps this is the beginning of a new phase of climate change politics. We are not used to hearing the words ‘the system must change’ or reading that capitalism could (and should) come to an end.

Thunberg began as a lone voice, and many more joined her. Jefferies was a lone voice too. He foresaw the need for the death of capitalism, and this hope was embodied in an iconic image in his novel ‘After London’ (1885).  When Felix’s quest brings him to the ruined, poisoned city of London he stumbles upon skeletons and blackened heaps of useless money.

“These skeletons were the miserable relics of men who had ventured in search of ancient treasures, into the deadly marshes over the site of the mightiest city of former days. The deserted and utterly extinct city of London was under his feet.” (After London or Wild England)

The detestable creed that ‘time is money’, the endless spinning of economic wheels that was only going to result in the exploitation of natural resources and eventually the demise of society itself, was a theme of his work in the 1870s and 1880s. A more meaningful existence, something other than oiling the greedy wheels of capitalism, was surely the right of everyone born into the world.

How did Jefferies manage to get these ideas into print in late-Victorian England? He donned the uniform of ‘Nature Writer’ and ‘Nature Journalist’, which gave him an acceptable (and at the time, innovative) role in the media. His printed natural history works always contained elements of mystical longing and awakening. Even as early as 1875 in the Pall Mall Gazette, in his article ‘The Commonest Thing in the World’ he walks the Wiltshire Downs, picks up a flint, and imagines what wonders the stone has been witness to. But as his career developed he no longer held back his views or his radical hopes for change. Some of his greatest works are pieces of prose that seemingly describe a rural scene ‘Walks in the Wheatfields’ for instance, but are laced with a sharp critique of social and economic systems. ‘St. Guido,’ is another example – a golden-haired boy wandering the fields, musing on what he finds, talking to the wheat, the brook, and the birds. The ethic of the piece cannot be missed, and is well demonstrated here in the speech given to Guido by the Wheat:

“the flowers go, and the swallows go, the old, old oaks go, and that oak will go, under the shade of which you are lying, Guido; and if your people do not gather the flowers now, and watch the swallows, and listen to the blackbirds whistling, as you are listening now while I talk, then Guido, my love, they will never pick any flowers, nor hear any birds’ songs. They think they will, they think that when they have toiled, and worked a long time, almost all their lives, then they will come to the flowers, and the birds, and be joyful in the sunshine. But no, it will not be so, for then they will be old themselves, and their ears dull, and their eyes dim, so that the birds will sound a great distance off, and the flowers will not seem bright.

“Of course, we know that the greatest part of your people cannot help themselves, and must labour on like the reapers till their ears are full of the dust of age. That only makes us more sorrowful, and anxious that things should be different. I do not suppose we should think about them had we not been in man’s hand so long that now we have got to feel with man. Every year makes it more pitiful because then there are more flowers gone, and added to the vast numbers of those gone before, and never gathered or looked at, though they could have given so much pleasure. And all the work and labour, and thinking, and reading and learning that your people do ends in nothing – not even one flower. We cannot understand why it should be so. There are thousands of wheat-ears in this field, more than you would know how to write down with your pencil, though you have learned your tables, sir. Yet all of us thinking, and talking, cannot understand why it is when we consider how clever your people are, and how they bring ploughs, and steam-engines, and put up wires along the roads to tell you things when you are miles away, and sometimes we are sown where we can hear the hum, hum, all day of the children learning in the school. The butterflies flutter over us, and the sun shines, and the doves are very, very happy at their nest, but the children go on hum, hum inside this house, and learn, learn. So we suppose you must be very clever, and yet you cannot manage this. All your work is wasted, and you labour in vain – you dare not leave it a minute.

“If you left it a minute it would all be gone; it does not mount up and make a store, so that all of you could sit by it and be happy. Directly you leave off you are hungry, and thirsty, and miserable like the beggars that tramp along the dusty road here. All the thousand years of labour since this field was first ploughed have not stored up anything for you. It would not matter about the work so much if you were only happy; the bees work every year, but they are happy; the doves build a nest every year, but they are very, very happy. We think it must be because you do not come out to us and be with us, and think more as we do. It is not because your people have not got plenty to eat and drink – you have as much as the bees. Why just look at us! Look at the wheat that grows all over the world; all the figures that were ever written in pencil could not tell how much, it is such an immense quantity. Yet your people starve and die of hunger every now and then, and we have seen the wretched beggars tramping along the road. We have known of times when there was a great pile of us, almost a hill piled up, it was not in this country, it was in another warmer country, and yet no one dared to touch it – they died at the bottom of the hill of wheat. The earth is full of skeletons of people who have died of hunger. They are dying now this minute in your big cities, with nothing but stones all round them, stone walls and stone streets; not jolly stones like those you threw in the water, dear – hard, unkind stones that make them cold and let them die, while we are growing here, millions of us, in the sunshine with the butterflies floating over us. This makes us unhappy; I was very unhappy this morning till you came running over and played with us.

“It is not because there is not enough: it is because your people are so short-sighted, so jealous and selfish, and so curiously infatuated with things that are not so good as your old toys which you have flung away and forgotten. And you teach the children hum, hum, all day to care about such silly things, and to work for them and to look to them as the object of their lives. It is because you do not share us among you without price or difference; because you do not share the great earth among you fairly, without spite and jealousy and avarice; because you will not agree; you silly, foolish people to let all the flowers wither for a thousand years while you keep each other at a distance, instead of agreeing and sharing them! Is there something in you – as there is poison in the nightshade, you know it, dear, your papa told you not to touch it – is there a sort of poison in your people that works them up into a hatred of one another? Why, then, do you not agree and have all things, all the great earth can give you, just as we have the sunshine and the rain? How happy your people could be if they would only agree!”

The Independent Labour Party published a special edition of this essay in 1908, with an introduction by the M.P. J. Ramsay MacDonald – the first Labour Party politician to become a UK Prime Minister.

In 1883 Jefferies’ socially challenging autobiography The Story of My Heart only narrowly went into print, and never succeeded as a book during his lifetime, but after his death became the most reprinted of all his books. This extended essay, written from the heart, is an attack against capitalism through the lens of nature itself and through the vision of a beautifully sensitive and open mind. He wished to make the world a better place for future generations; hence the often-quoted “How pleasant it would be each day to think, to-day I have done something that will tend to make future generations more happy.”

Jefferies knew his friends would be in the future. A sad little note to this effect can be found in his notebooks – as if he knew that he was, at that time, already speaking to us.

Jefferies may have spoken for the lone wanderer, but he spoke for wider humanity too. After his death at age 38, from Tuberculosis, his heroic effort to reach people, to try to make a change for the better, was recognised in Justice, the weekly newspaper of the Social Democratic Federation. In an article titled ‘The Irony of Individualism’, published on 1st October 1887, the magazine laments the lack of opportunities afforded by society to men (and only men) of the time:

“In Spain, as in other countries,” write Richard Ford in his famous Handbook, “the fate of the man of letters is hard. When living, his countrymen refuse him bread; when dead, they vouchsafe him a stone.” Richard Jefferies, the most charming writer on rural matters of our own or perhaps of any generation, died of overwork and poverty. His public was too small to secure him a livelihood, or to allow him to make provision for his children. He dies, and happily the Government grants £100 a year to his wife. But how many men of genius who might delight mankind by their works are even now being crushed out by overwork without ever having had an outlet for their faculties?  … Our anarchical competitive society stunts the individual, wears him out with overwork and uncertainty, and deprives humanity of the educated intelligence of her noblest sons.”

From Jefferies’ perspective it must have been an incredibly lonely and difficult vocation – a radical thinker writing against a tide of late nineteenth century inequality, stale dogma, and poverty. Let’s not forget, then, that the actions and words of a single person can and do make a difference. We all need hope, but as Greta Thunberg said recently, “once we start to act, hope is everywhere”.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/mar/18/ending-climate-change-end-capitalism

PILGRIMAGE IN COUNTRY AND CITY

SIMON COLEMAN

 

Here is a fine passage from Richard Jefferies’ autobiography, ‘The Story of My Heart’. His economical prose takes us through a variety of scenes, the emotions clear but restrained. Places of pilgrimage in nature were essential to him – places where he could experience beauty and feel connected to the ‘immense forces’ that are the four elements. He alludes to unhappiness but his search for beauty is unceasing. In the heart of London he finds nature to be ‘deepened by the crowds and foot-worn stones’. I find something very inspiring about this perception, and the whole of the last paragraph. I hope others do as well.

 

“Afterwards, I walked almost daily more than two miles along the road to a spot where the hills began, where from the first rise the road could be seen winding southwards over the hills, open and uninclosed. I paused a minute or two by a clump of firs, in whose branches the wind always sighed—there is always a movement of the air on a hill. Southwards the sky was illumined by the sun, southwards the clouds moved across the opening or pass in the amphitheatre, and southwards, though far distant, was the sea. There I could think a moment. These pilgrimages gave me a few sacred minutes daily; the moment seemed holy when the thought or desire came in its full force.

 

A time came when, having to live in a town, these pilgrimages had to be suspended. The wearisome work on which I was engaged would not permit of them. But I used to look now and then, from a window, in the evening at a birch-tree at some distance; its graceful boughs drooped across the glow of the sunset. The thought was not suspended; it lived in me always. A bitterer time still came when it was necessary to be separated from those I loved. There is little indeed in the more immediate suburbs of London to gratify the sense of the beautiful. Yet there was a cedar by which I used to walk up and down, and think the same thoughts as under the great oak in the solitude of the sunlit meadows. In the course of slow time happier circumstances brought us together again, and, though near London, at a spot where there was easy access to meadows and woods. Hills that purify those who walk on them there were not. Still I thought my old thoughts.

 

I was much in London, and, engagements completed, I wandered about in the same way as in the woods of former days. From the stone bridges I looked down on the river; the gritty dust, the straws that lie on the bridges, flew up and whirled round with every gust from the flowing tide; gritty dust that settles in the nostrils and on the lips, the very residuum of all that is repulsive in the greatest city of the world. The noise of the traffic and the constant pressure from the crowds passing, their incessant and disjointed talk, could not distract me. One moment at least I had, a moment when I thought of the push of the great sea forcing the water to flow under the feet of these crowds, the distant sea strong and splendid; when I saw the sunlight gleam on the tidal wavelets; when I felt the wind, and was conscious of the earth, the sea, the sun, the air, the immense forces working on, while the city hummed by the river. Nature was deepened by the crowds and foot-worn stones. If the tide had ebbed, and the masts of the vessels were tilted as the hulls rested on the shelving mud, still even the blackened mud did not prevent me seeing the water as water flowing to the sea. The sea had drawn down, and the wavelets washing the strand here as they hastened were running the faster to it. Eastwards from London Bridge the river raced to the ocean.”

 

COSMIC LIONS

Simon Coleman

trafalgar lions

Richard Jefferies wrote two great essays on the theme of Trafalgar Square in London.  One of them, ‘Sunlight in a London Square’, has already been featured on this website.  The following quote is from ‘The Lions in Trafalgar Square’ which explores the relationship between human life and the great unknown, with Landseer’s huge lions symbolising a link between ourselves and the cosmos.

 

‘At summer noontide, when the day surrounds us and it is bright light even in the shadow, I like to stand by one of the lions and yield to the old feeling. The sunshine glows on the dusky creature, as it seems, not on the surface, but under the skin, as if it came up from out of the limb. The roar of the rolling wheels sinks and becomes distant as the sound of a waterfall when dreams are coming. All the abundant human life is smoothed and levelled, the abruptness of the individuals lost in the flowing current, like separate flowers drawn along in a border, like music heard so far off that the notes are molten and the theme only remains. The abyss of the sky over and the ancient sun are near. They only are close at hand, they and immortal thought. When the yellow Syrian lions stood in old time of Egypt, then too, the sunlight gleamed on the eyes of men, as now this hour on mine. The same consciousness of light, the same sun, but the eyes that saw it and mine, how far apart! The immense lion here beside me expresses larger nature—cosmos—the ever-existent thought which sustains the world. Massiveness exalts the mind till the vast roads of space which the sun tramples are as an arm’s-length. Such a moment cannot endure long; gradually the roar deepens, the current resolves into individuals, the houses return—it is only a square.’

 

Here is a link to the full text.   http://www.gutenberg.org/files/27516/27516-h/27516-h.htm#THE_LIONS_IN_TRAFALGAR_SQUARE

 

I really encourage people to read the essay because it possesses a true strength of heart and mind.  I can’t fully explain what I mean by that; nor can I clearly explain why the essay has such a powerful effect on me.  Jefferies celebrates the lions as great art:

 

‘…these are truer and more real, and, besides, these are lions to whom has been added the heart of a man. Nothing disfigures them; smoke and, what is much worse, black rain—rain which washes the atmosphere of the suspended mud—does not affect them in the least. If the choke-damp of fog obscures them, it leaves no stain on the design; if the surfaces be stained, the idea made tangible in metal is not. They are no more touched than Time itself by the alternations of the seasons. The only noble open-air work of native art in the four-million city, they rest there supreme and are the centre.’

 

He then launches into an attack on the fashionable art of his day which he finds shallow and untrue to nature.  This short outburst is the one small blemish on the essay.  Having read the work a number of times, I began to see that it’s not really about visual art.  What I sense it possesses are poetic ideas of real importance.  I’m not a poet but I do think that poetic ideas exist in all people, whether or not they are ever recognised or expressed.  The belief that we can go beyond the given, the defined, our own private and petty fates, the expected outcomes of thought and action, and confront the unknown – belongs to the poetic insight and this, I feel, is what holds the essay together.

 

The mind, the idea, expressed by Jefferies’ lions, opens up possibilities for accessing new realms of thought and imagination – ‘cosmic’ realms where human life might know something of a greater Nature.  Time collapses, but the experience is fleeting as all true insights are.

 

How urgently we need poetic ideas in our data-driven world controlled by an ideologically-focused mass-media, not necessarily to escape it but to feel beyond it towards larger and freer channels of thought.  We can’t all be poets in the literary sense, but accessing the poetic archetype is surely a human necessity.

An Extraordinary Journey: Richard Jefferies and the month of February

Rebecca Welshman

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Jefferies in 1872

In February 1871 when he was 22 years old, Richard Jefferies wrote a letter to his Aunt Ellen Harrild in which he described the difficulties he was experiencing in trying to forge a career as an author. The letter, paraphrased by Walter Besant, explained that he had been trying to earn a living by writing and to find work as a reporter. He found London to be overrun with reporters, and the two Swindon papers close to home were fully staffed. He had tried to sell his gun, had drafted two novels and written a hundred pages of another. Interestingly, from this point on February became a month of note for Jefferies, with each year bringing significant  developments in his life.

In February 1872 Jefferies began a second phase of work for the Wiltshire and Gloucester Standard, having previously been a reporter for the paper for a while in 1869. On the 9 March he published a letter in the paper about agricultural labour. This letter anticipated his letters on the Wiltshire Labourer in The Times in November 1872 which brought him nationwide attention and acclaim.

In February 1873 he wrote to Bentley, the publisher, to offer ‘Only a Girl’ – a novel that he described as follows: “the leading idea is the delineation of the character of a girl entirely unconventional and determined to follow the impulse of her own nature. The scenery is laid in Wiltshire, and I have introduced some of the social legends of that county to give it a county interest.” Following the success of the Wiltshire Labourer letters, he also writes that “I am not altogether unknown in a literary sense: my letters in the Times on the “Wiltshire Labourer” made some noise at the time, and have been quoted continually since.” The manuscript of Only a Girl has never been traced and we know very little about it.

In February 1874 Jefferies sends what will become his first published novel to Tinsleys. A reader’s report for the novel described it as “a remarkable and original book. It is unlike almost all novels ever written, – studies of character and incident without dialogue. The more intellectual few will admire it, but it is not likely to become popular.” Jefferies also wrote “to write a tale is to me as easy as to write a letter, and I do not see why I should not issue two a year for the next twelve or fifteen years. I can hardly see the possible loss from a novel.” His novels, however, were not as successful as he had hoped, despite going on to publish Restless Human Hearts and World’s End in the same decade. Restless Human Hearts was published by Tinsley in February 1875.

February 1876 saw another novel submitted to Bentley called ‘In Summer Time’. Although rejected at the time, it is likely that this manuscript evolved or was used in some way in the preparation of The Dewy Morn, which was published in 1884. In February 1876 Jefferies also published the pamphlet ‘Suez-Cide! or, How Miss Britannia Bought a Dirty Puddle and Lost her Sugar Plums’, with J. Snow and Co.’ This satire was unlike anything he had written before, and it became so collectible that it was forged. The forged edition itself is now so rare that it is worth around £450. The work was an allegory of Benjamin Disraeli’s purchase of Suez Canal shares.

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In February 1877 Jefferies made some notebook entries for what would become ‘Wild Life in a Southern County’, concerning blackthorn in bloom in Surrey, and a reference to Selborne. These notes are of particular significance because they suggest Jefferies’ early familiarity with the work of Gilbert White (see Matthews and Trietel, ‘The Forward Life of Richard Jefferies, p. 84). White (1720-1793) was a pioneering naturalist and one of the founders of the English nature writing tradition. His best known book is  ‘The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne’.

On 1st February 1878 a letter arrived from Jefferies at the offices of Smith, Elder, and Co, accepting a proposal from them. For the first time Jefferies has been approached by a publisher to produce a work. Smith and Elder had noticed Jefferies’ articles in the Pall Mall Gazette titled ‘The Gamekeeper at Home’, and asked him if they might publish them in book form. It was a major breakthrough for the young Jefferies, who at age 29, with a wife and child to support, was looking for a stepping stone into the commercial world of publishing.

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The Gamekeeper at Home, first edition

The first half of February 1879 (1-15th) saw Smith and Elder publish Jefferies’ second collection of natural history and countryside articles, which appeared first in the Pall Mall Gazette, and which we know today as ‘Wild Life in a Southern County’. On 6 February Smith and Elder paid Jefferies £200 (double the amount initially offered by them in December 1878), which as Matthews and Trietel point out, suggests that Jefferies had successfully negotiated better terms. On 11 February Jefferies dated a signed presentation copy of the book for his mother, Elizabeth. February 1880 was no less eventful, with Jefferies securing an agreement with Cassells publishing firm for his book Wood Magic: a Fable, the first copy of which he inscribed to his eldest son, Harold. Today this book features in the many activities for children that take place at Jefferies’ birthplace – the Richard Jefferies Museum.

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A 1920s edition of Wood Magic

On 1 February 1882 Jefferies made a unique manuscript note that can be seen at the British Library. On a single leaf of paper he wrote the date, and ‘New Thought. Beauty’. Something significant was happening for Jefferies at this time – a shift in thought, a sense of getting closer to what really mattered to him. For year he had been trying to write his spiritual work, The Story of My Heart, and he refers to early attempts having been destroyed. In the summer of 1882 the Jefferies family moved to Brighton, where the expanses of the South Downs and the sparkling sea were to draw forth from Jefferies some of his finest work, and most importantly, the final version of The Story of My Heart. The February note, although so brief, suggests that he was beginning to clearly articulate the ‘one thought’ that he said went winding through his days, like a meandering brook through a meadow – the one hope that he could crystallise new spiritual ideas and share them with the world. As he wrote that year in ‘Out of Doors in February’, published in Good Words, ‘The murmur of the poets is indeed louder in February than in the more pleasant days of summer, for then the growth of aquatic grasses checks the flow and stills it, whilst in February, every stone, or flint, or lump of chalk divides the current and causes a vibration.’ He sees that ‘the lark and the light are one, and wherever he glides over the wet furrows the glint of the sun goes with him.’ The lark becomes ‘a sign of hope’.

skylark

Wood engraving of a Skylark by Peter Brown

As his career began to flourish, and he became increasingly well known, a parallel development was taking place that was to largely rob him of the chance to enjoy his success, and would inevitably shorten his life. Jefferies’ illness, which until now had not seriously impaired his life, began to take hold. In February 1883 he describes being ‘seized with a mysterious wasting disease, accompanied by much pain. I gradually wasted away to mere bones. By degrees this pain increased till it became almost insupportable.’ This happened two months after having a complicated operation for fistula, which had cost him ‘a large share’ of his savings. The doctors could do nothing, he wrote, so he sought London doctors, who for more than two years gave him various prescriptions, but nothing could relieve the ‘maddening’ pain. Hugoe Matthews writes that later medical knowledge would have classed these symptoms as low-grade tuberculous peritonitis, but to doctors of the time it would have seemed a mysterious disease without any apparent cure.

Despite all this, Jefferies secured a further book contract in February 1883, this time with Chatto and Windus, for Nature near London. In the February of 1884 Jefferies made a note of an address of a studio in Charlotte Street, London, which marked the beginning of one of the most important friendships of his life. The studio belonged to the artist J.W. North, one of the Idyllists who specialized in illustration, watercolour, and oils. Steve Milton, in his article on North, writes that North and Jefferies were introduce to one another by Joseph Comyns Carr in 1883. It is no surprise that the two men found a meaningful connection, for like Jefferies, North ‘always worked direct from nature in the open air’.  As Milton explains:

“‘In many of his best works, figures although present are generally subordinate or incidental to the scene – the focus is nature. The Idyll that North seeks to reveal seems to be about inner revelation or rapture – human spirit and emotion defined within a natural context. Like Jefferies, there is an element of mysticism in North’s work. In Jefferies’ nature writing, time seems irrelevant and deeper truths are hinted at but not completely revealed – an idyllic state of oneness with nature.”

http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/341674

‘Spring’ in watercolour, by J.W. North. Metropolitan Museum

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‘An Old Bowling Green’, Halsway Manor in Somerset, 1865, by J.W. North

No extant letters from Jefferies to North are known, but we do know that after Jefferies’ death in August 1887, his wife and children went to stay with North in Somerset. North took care of them, helped Jessie with the process of securing a civil  list pension, and instigated a memorial fund for Jefferies. North wrote a moving account of the day he rushed to Jefferies’ bedside at Goring, but on arriving found that his friend had already passed away.

“…I went yesterday, expecting to once more speak with him. I found him lying dead, twelve hours dead. I saw him with Mrs. Jefferies and their little Phyllis. A pitiful sight to see them kiss the poor cold face! God help them! “When I find a new flower in the garden I cannot show it to papa now.  Mamma! Mamma! I hope Tommy Burrell won’t tell everybody that I have got no papa now.” The poor wife seemed to feel the change which death had brought upon the dear loved face almost more than all the rest. “Oh! How he is changed! A few hours back he was himself. How can I bear it? But they tell me he will soon again look better.” When I tried to dissuade her from looking upon him she said: “I must – I must; until he is taken away I must see him, and I must kiss him each time. My Phyllis, you will never see your dear papa without kissing him?” “No, no.” said the little one, and she had no fear in the presence of death. …

I asked Mrs. Jefferies if he had made a will. She said: “No: surely it would have been useless; we have nothing.  A woman singly, strong as I am could rough it; but if something can be done for the children I shall be thankful.”

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John William North

On 8 February 1886 the ailing Jefferies wrote to his mother from his address in Crowborough ‘The Downs’:

“My dear Mother, I have wanted for a long time to write to you but I am so fearfully weak I can with difficulty sit & the torture I go through every day & often all night long is indescribable, my stomach and bowels seem all wasted away & my back is as it were broken, nothing will give any relief. It starves me – it is downright starvation, eat what I will it is still empty. There is something wrong inside which no one can find out. The Doctor here says he has no idea what is the matter & has given me up sometime. I am now trying to get a physician down from London but the expense is very great. The cold here is intense & does so much harm but cold is not the cause…You must not be surprised that Jessie has not written, she has so much to do waiting on me all day for I cannot do the smallest thing for myself. So you must not suppose it is because we do not think of you. Phyllis has grown such a big girl & is very busy and happy, she knows her letters now. Toby is all go & rush like a wild March wind. He plays hare and hounds right through the forest here, sometimes they go for miles and rather alarm me as I cannot get out to see what he is doing. I have not been out of doors now for months. He often talks of his grandfather & wants to see him. I hope we shall see you both in the warmer weather. Phyllis says I am to tell you something about her, she says she can do some sewing now. Toby gets on capital with his drawing at the studio & I think will make a first rate draughtsman if he will but work. He has taught himself several airs on the piano entirely by ear & sings very nicely having a good voice. I very much hope that you & the governor will come and see us in the warmer weather. This place is beautiful in summer. Now it is a howling wilderness. I have managed to write a letter somehow but it causes me much distress & pain to do anything. With much love to yourself & the governor, always your affectionate son Richard.”

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Jefferies’ Last Days at Goring, dictating his work to his wife, Jessie

By February 1887 Jefferies knew he was dying. He describes himself in a letter to C.P. Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian, as ‘a perfect invalid’, and seems hopeful:  “I am in hope, too, that as the warmth comes on the sea will help me more.” Yet by 14 February his notebook entries are imbued with despair:

“I have had the misery of dying many times and the presence of it for years. Children neglected playing with street roughs. Slobbering food for months like an imbecile old man. Handkerchief – drop not able to pick up. Writing a letter – effort. … Neither lie stand walk sit without distress.”

Alongside these notes, however, are jottings relating to ‘Sun Life’, his next proposed spiritual work, which he had already begun writing. The Jefferies of February 1887 makes a poignant contrast to the eager ambitious youth seeking reporting work in the February of 1871. He had only 6 months to live, and for that time he wrote profusely about Sun Life in his notebooks, even alluding to a manuscript, which has never been traced. On 16 February he lists 22 key ideas for the work, which include:

“There is another Nature or Natures”

“That we do not really see things at all”

“That there is a whole of which I form a part, now, then, and after, and that this I recognise in looking at the cedar in the night, at the Dawn, even if I perish utterly as I understand perishing”

“That this whole is superior probably to all the common ideas of justice, beneficence”

“That the true work of man is the Man Help”

“There is more than I have imagined rather than less”

“The opening of the mind forever”

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References

 

Jefferies’ notebooks

Hugoe Matthews and Phyllis Trietel, The Forward Life of Richard Jefferies. Petton Books, 1994.

Steve Milton on J.W. North

http://www.southwilts.com/site/The-Idyllists/JWN-Working-Notes.htm

 

IMPRESSIONS OF RICHARD JEFFERIES

Simon Coleman

RJ head and shoulders framed

The first biography of Richard Jefferies appeared in 1888, the year after his death at the age of 38.  It was written by the novelist, Sir Walter Besant, who had become aware of Jefferies’ work in the 1870s and had subsequently followed his career very closely.  Besant never met Jefferies but knew, through business associations, the husband of Jefferies’ sister.  In compiling his biography he was given access to letters and notebooks that are no longer known.  This is how Besant described the physical appearance of Jefferies:

 

“In appearance Richard Jefferies was very tall—over six feet. He was always thin. At the age of seventeen his friends feared that he would go into a decline, which was happily averted—perhaps through his love for the open air. His hair was dark-brown; his beard was brown, with a shade of auburn; his forehead both high and broad; his features strongly marked; his nose long, clear, and straight; his lower lip thick; his eyebrows distinguished by the meditative droop; his complexion was fair, with very little colour. The most remarkable feature in his face was his large and clear blue eye; it was so full that it ought to have been short-sighted, yet his sight was far as well as keen. His face was full of thought; he walked with somewhat noiseless tread and a rapid stride. He never carried an umbrella or wore a great-coat, nor, except in very cold weather, did he wear gloves. He had great powers of endurance in walking, but his physical strength was never great. In manner, as has been already stated, he was always reserved; at this time so much so as to appear morose to those who knew him but slightly.”

 

He also provides details of Jefferies’ daily lifestyle and routines, and some of his literary tastes.  In addition to those authors mentioned, Jefferies read much of Shakespeare, the Greek and Roman classics (especially Homer and Plato) and the ‘Arabian Nights’.  He is also known to have admired Robert Louis Stevenson but disliked Jane Austen.

 

“As for his personal habits, Jefferies was extremely simple and regular, even methodical. He breakfasted always at eight o’clock, often on nothing but dry toast and tea. After breakfast he went to his study, where he remained writing until half-past eleven. At that hour he always went out, whatever the weather and in all seasons, and walked until one o’clock. This morning walk was an absolute necessity for him. At one o’clock he returned and took an early dinner, which was his only substantial meal. His tastes were simple. He liked to have a plain roast or boiled joint, with abundance of vegetables, of which he was very fond, especially asparagus, sea-kale, and mushrooms. He would have preferred ale, but he found that light claret or burgundy suited him better, and therefore he drank daily a little of one or the other.

 

Dinner over, he read his daily paper, and slept for an hour by the fireside. Perhaps this after-dinner sleep may be taken as a sign of physical weakness. A young man of thirty ought not to want an hour’s sleep in the middle of the day. At three o’clock he awoke, and went for another walk, coming home at half-past four. He thus walked for three hours every day, which, for a quick walker, gives a distance of twelve miles—a very good allowance of fresh air. Men of all kinds, who have to keep the brain in constant activity, have found that the active exercise of walking is more valuable than any other way of recreation in promoting a healthy activity of the brain. To talk with children is a rest; to visit picture-galleries changes the current of thought; to play lawn tennis diverts the brain; but to walk both rests the brain and stimulates it. Jefferies acquired the habit of noting down in his walks, and storing away, those thousands of little things which make his writings the despair of people who think themselves minute observers. He took tea at five, and then worked again in his study till half-past eight, when he commonly finished work for the day. In other words, he gave up five hours of the solid day to work. It is, I think, impossible for a man to carry on literary work of any but the humblest kind for more than five hours a day; three hours remained for exercise, and the rest for food, rest, and reading. He took a little supper at nine, of cold meat and bread, with a glass of claret, and then read or conversed until eleven, when he went to bed. He took tobacco very rarely.

 

He had not a large library, because the works which he most wished to procure were generally beyond his means. For instance, he was always desirous, but never able, to purchase Sowerby’s “English Wild-Flowers.” His favourite novelists were Scott and Charles Reade. The conjunction of these two names gives me singular pleasure, as to one who admires the great qualities of Reade. He also liked the works of Ouida and Miss Braddon. He never cared greatly for Charles Dickens. I think the reason why Dickens did not touch him was that the kind of lower middle-class life which Dickens knew so well, and loved to portray, belonged exclusively to the town, which Jefferies did not know, and not to the country, which he did. He was never tired of Goethe’s “Faust,” which was always new to him. He loved old ballads, and among the poets, Dryden’s works were his favourite reading. In one thing he was imperious: the house must be kept quiet—absolutely quiet—while he was at work. Any household operations that made the least noise had to be postponed till he went out for his walk.”